“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing’.” — Daniel J. Boorstin
Being a tourist has its time and place. There are times when sitting by a pool may be just what you need.
For those who squirm at the thought of sitting poolside for over an hour, for those who itch to explore, to learn, to meet real local people and hear their stories, being a tourist is not an option.
For those who want to exert their traveler muscles, for those who plan to stay awhile, living in a foreign land, here are a seven things to remember.
1. Adopt a Learning Posture
“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” — Bill Bryson
This state of ignorance, not knowing our surroundings, feels vulnerable. And it is best experienced as “childlike wonder”. So, like a child, we need to start asking questions. Be inquisitive.
We westerners value independence so much we hesitate to ask for help. We’d rather ask Siri or our map app. But everything Siri tells you, you could learn from the comfort of your own home.
You’re in a real place with real people. Ask them what you want to know! Better yet, ask them what they think you should know about their home.
People love to share their story and their home. Where should you eat? What should you see? Who should you meet?
Trip advisor is great but it can’t beat local knowledge.
You might find a gem — a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant, a swimming hole, hiking trail or shop. Besides, you might make a friend.
2. Be Flexible
Adversity enlightens us more than anything else….
…Traveling is one of the most adversity-filled things you can do. Everything is new. — Tom Kuegler
Be careful to not load your suitcase with unstated expectations.
Do not demand that this be THE perfect trip. A canceled flight does not ruin a trip. It is part of the adventure. Enduring it together is where your family can bond (and bicker and whine).
My daughter recently told me, “I’m tired of houses. I want to go to an airport.” Long layovers can be fun.
Worst case, they make for good travel stories later.
Do not expect this trip to be the thing that reignites the spark in your marriage. Do not count on a trip to make your family cohesive or to heal fissures in your relationships.
Travel is a chance to strengthen family bonds but it can’t heal past hurts.
Travel cannot guarantee you’ll never need counseling or hard conversations. It will give you fresh eyes if you let it. It will unearth assumptions and values you didn’t even realize you were holding.
3. Stop Comparing with Home
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” — Clifton Fadiman
When we forget this, we perpetually compare with home. We note all the things we do “better”. How life at home is easier. Of course it is! If convenience and ease are your top priorities, just stay home!
Travel will stretch and challenge you. It will inconvenience you, and ultimately change you. That is its gift.
And please, do NOT offer locals unsolicited advice on how they might do their job more efficiently.
No one likes a know-it-all. Alienating people is guaranteed to leave you feeling lonely and disconnected.
4. Learn Some Local History and Politics
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” — Alan Alda
Learning will increase your empathy for the people and culture. It will give insight into some cultural values and traditions. You won’t “get” why people think the way they do but you can gain insight into how their worldview and assumptions differ from yours.
At a minimum, read the Lonely Planet write-up on the area.
Even desolate roads and deserted buildings hold stories. Learn as many as you can.
Without our Lonely Planet, we wouldn’t have known that our drive trip across the Argentina pampa took us by the homestead of fugitive bandits. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place tried the rural life in Patagonia (near Cholila) for a few years.
5. Learn the Language
Everyone should learn English, shouldn’t they?
No. They should not. You are in their land. Learn the language. At least a little.
Google translate is good enough. No, it is not. Google translate is great for inserting a word or two into a sentence, but when you start translating full paragraphs, it gets sketchy. At best, it is awkward to read. At worst, things are lost in translation.
We were once given a written report on our child’s day at day care. Two run-on sentences filled an entire page. It was clear it had been translated from Korean by Google translate. Its precise meaning was less clear. Something about non-compliance (the kid was two and didn’t speak Korean).
Even if languages aren’t your forte, you can learn some basics. Start with “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Yes” and “No.” Most people will appreciate your effort.
Knowing a few phrases makes exploring easier and gives you more chances to chat with locals. Start with these:
- “I’m from…”
- “How much does it cost?” (Learn some numbers, or use body language — showing a bill, counting with fingers, etc. to figure out the answer!)
- “Where is the restroom?”
When we arrived in rural Argentina, people wondered what we were doing there. I learned to answer the most common questions. “Where are you from? Why are you here? How long will you stay?”
Once we deviated from that script, I was done. But it was a good start. I repeated the same phrases so many times they started to sound pretty solid.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
Move. Get out and explore. Mingle with the locals. Opt for the hole-in-the-wall or the picnic lunch over the hotel filled with foreigners.
Hit the local market. Do some research ahead of time. If you are supposed to barter, barter. If you’re not, respect those norms.
7. Don’t Over Schedule
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things — air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky — all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” — Cesare Pavese
Exploring, navigating unfamiliar terrain, communicating in an unfamiliar language — all this is exhilarating. And exhausting.
An illness showed Wayne Muller that “…even emotions require energy. Friendliness, being open to conversation,… ” All these little things “drain us in small, imperceptible ways”.
Negotiating unfamiliar streets and conversing in a new language (or via gestures) take mental and physical tole.
Allow yourself some downtime. Rest on a park bench, people-watch in a café, or a nap back at your room.
This is especially important if you’re traveling with kids!
Push kids too hard and everyone suffers. My mantra for travel with traveling kids is limit over-tiredness and limit over-stimulation. Both are fine for awhile, but recovery time needs to be built in. After a long day of sight-seeing, consider eating take-out in your room so kids can crash early.
A Surefire Approach
Adopt a posture of curiosity and adaptability.
Don’t demand your way. Explore. Stay curious. Ask. Look. Listen. Learn.
Don’t worry about the delays and inconveniences. Remember they make for good stories later.
What have been your best and worst travel experiences? Have you seen these attitudes in action — or their opposites?
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